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Early in elementary school, many children already believe that boys are more interested than girls in computer science and engineering. That stereotype can impact girls’ willingness to participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes and activities, and even affect career choices down the road.

That’s the key finding of a recently released study from researchers at the University of Houston and the University of Washington, who surveyed 2,500 students in grades 1 to 12 to learn about the stereotypes children hold regarding boys’ and girls’ interest in STEM, and how those stereotypes affect STEM participation.

By first grade, many children already believe boys are more interested than girls in engineering, the study found. By third grade, children believe that gender-based interest is true of computer science as well. Interestingly, the research revealed that stereotypes about who is interested in STEM are stronger than stereotypes about STEM ability. The belief that girls find math and science less engaging was shown to have a greater impact on girls’ interest in STEM than the belief that they may not be good at it.

“These beliefs then, as they get older, get linked to their own motivation and their interest,” said Allison Master, assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Education and lead author of the study. “Stereotypes are self-fulfilling prophecies.” In the report, Master and her co-authors concluded that such stereotypes “may send girls a signal that they do not belong and dissuade them from developing an interest in these fields.”

These findings suggest that combating STEM stereotypes should start early. Master said it’s important to look at the gender-based messages kids receive through the toys they play with as young children, or the way STEM-related products are marketed to a specific gender. Caregivers and teachers should be aware of any gender bias in the opportunities they provide to children to engage in STEM and in the messages they may send about who may be interested in or good at STEM activities. Giving young children a chance to interact in a positive way with STEM could also be helpful by providing children good experiences to fall back on when they encounter stereotypes, Master added.

Not all children have access to such experiences, however. Research shows that preschool teachers are less likely to offer science lessons and activities in early childhood classrooms if they are not confident about their own knowledge of science. Some early learning programs have tried to address early exposure to STEM by making science the center of their curricula and working with teachers to expand their knowledge of science.

In New York City, the Brooklyn Preschool of Science was launched in 2012 to expose young children to science concepts, which are infused throughout lessons each day. Carmelo Piazza, executive and educational director of the school, said he has found that science is a natural way to pique the interest of young children. Children at the private preschool spend time observing bugs, making models of mealworms during art and dabbling in robotics, with ample time for independent play and lessons that focus on a central question that children work to answer.

While Piazza acknowledges some schools’ efforts may be stymied by limited budgets, he said there are ways to infuse science into curricula by creating more hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities, like setting up science experiments with household items. Letting kids explore old pumpkins after Halloween, examine insects or build cars out of milk containers, for example, are low-cost ways of bringing science into the classroom for young children, he said.

“Kids are natural born scientists,” he said. “You have to do it when they’re young. That’s when they absorb the content, they will start to understand and not have fears.”

Here are some additional takeaways from the study, which can be read in full in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

  • Girls showed lower interest and sense of belonging in computer science and engineering if they had stronger stereotypes about boys liking those fields.
  • More than one-third of children believed girls are less interested than boys in computer science. Eighteen percent of children believed girls were more interested.
  • By age 8, girls were already impacted by the stereotypes: If they were told girls were generally not interested in an activity, they showed less interest in that activity. Conversely, they were more likely to try an activity if they were told that both boys and girls were interested.

This story about girls in STEM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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